Fix Your Squat – Part One
Welcome to the first post of the squat series. These posts are meant for those with some weightlifting experience looking to improve on their technique/weight, prevent future injury, or manage ongoing issues. In order to talk about what we may need to fix, we first need to understand what’s considered normal. For our purposes this relates to things you have no control over: your femur and trunk length, and your hip joint anatomy. This post is for those of us who struggle to find our deep squat. For the natural deep squatters – stay tuned for part two, or read on to understand our struggle and get an insight into squat mechanics.
Depending on your anatomy, your squat may be hugely different than another lifters.
Though you can’t change your anatomy, there are simple modifications you can make that help to even things out.
Those experiencing pain during of after squatting, and those that struggle even with modifications may need further assessment.
Femur to Trunk Length Ratio
Those of us with long thighs and a short trunk are notoriously bad at reaching a deep squat. You may even have been criticized by a coach or trainer despite your best efforts. The length of your thighs relative to your torso influences your natural squat mechanics. Those of us with longer thighs and shorter trunks (ie. a high femur:trunk ratio) struggle to reach a deep squat without compromising elsewhere. If you have small thighs and a larger torso (low ratio), a full squat is more likely to feel natural for you. As shown below you need much more flexion at the hips and ankles in order to achieve the same depth as someone with a lower femur to trunk length ratio. The higher your femur to trunk ratio, the more forward bend present in your squat.
James and Vlad are the same height, but James has a higher femur:trunk ratio than Vlad. When it comes to squatting James can bring the bar as low as Vlad in the upper portions of the squat, but even here he has to learn further forward in order to do so. The angle between his thigh and trunk is noticeably less than Vlad’s (A1 < A2). Though it is not labelled, notice also how the angle between Vlad’s shin and the floor is greater than James’. James needs more ankle mobility as well as hip flexion in order to descend into his squat. This cartoon is by no means precise, but by maintaining the femur:trunk ratio between each picture it illustrates the point that Vlad’s body type is more suited to naturally squatting deep.
This increased hip flexion causes potential for either low back or hip injury in some, and may be why you experience symptoms when attempting a full squat. This usually happens by either causing the low low back (lumbosacral region) to flex too much and abnormally stress your discs/low back musculature, or by causing a pinching in the front of the hips as the already limited real estate is taken up even further. We’ll talk more about flexion and extension (eg. pelvic tilt, or butt-wink) during your squat in part two of this series. For now keep in mind that some movement here in the deep squat is a normal feature of anatomy. It only begins to matter if you have symptoms during your squat, or if there is simply too much movement.
Hip Joint Anatomy
Ideal hip joint anatomy for squatting comes from having a pelvis and femur relationship that makes bone on bone contact least likely as you go into hip flexion and external rotation. If you read weightlifting blogs you’ll have no doubt come across a discussion on hip socket depth/angle and how it relates to your ability to squat. The story goes that eastern Europeans have traditionally performed well in competitive weightlifting due to their shallow hip sockets, while for those of Scottish ancestry the opposite is true. These athletes reach deeper levels in their squat than their counterpart just simply due to favorable joint architecture. Your femur also has variable anatomy, specifically various amounts of rotation (known as anteversion and retroversion) relative to the hip socket itself.
Femoral anteversion, where the ball of the ball and socket joint is in front of the outside portion of your hip, often leads to a deeper squat. While retroversion, where the ball (femoral head) is behind the outside portion of your hip (greater trochanter), favors hip extension over squatting. This femoral rotation exists as a range, but those of us that struggle with a deep squat in a narrow stance are more likely on the retroversion side. We can also consider the variations in hip socket anatomy by imagining the red ellipse angled upward or downward (acetabular anteversion/retroversion), or as facing toward the computer screen or facing toward you. Also imagine that the ellipse may be deeper or more shallow, and that the femur may be angled not only forward and backward as shown here, but also upward and downward (known as coxa vera and coxa valga). With all these possibilities its easy to appreciate why your squat looks so much different than your training partners.
Those on the side of femoral retroversion are more likely to experience bone on bone contact sooner in a normal squat, and would therefore benefit from a wider stance. An important point is that your hip sockets can be very different from one another. This means that you shouldn’t necessarily try to train as symmetrically as possible. You may be better suited to slightly rotating one leg outward because your right femur is more retroverted, for example. If we’re lucky our body may have nudged us into instinctively making a change like this over time.
How does this change my squat?
If you fall under the above categories, or notice yourself struggling with a deep squat then you may simply need to make some changes. By no means should you stop squatting (even if injured there are typically modifications you can make to keep squatting through your injury one way or another). What this boils down to is that you may have certain limitations. My advice is to break down your squat in a top down approach: make simple modifications first, then find out if you have deficits you can improve on. After doing this you’ll have a better idea of what you’re left with. From here find a depth that you can maintain. This may be exactly parallel, or might even be noticeably above parallel for some.
As a side note, those with femoral retroversion and high femur to torso ratios often excel at hip extension. This translates to performing better with lunging and hip thrust exercises, as well as sports like sprinting where end range hip extension is valued over end range hip flexion (think of a wide receiver versus a linebacker).
How to modify your squat:
Right out of the gate there are modifications we can make in order to reach a deeper squat with more comfort. Most commonly these are introducing greater heel elevation (a lifting-specific shoe, or a plate under the heel), trying a wider stance, and trying to keep your knees wider while still tracking over your feet. Other options include holding the bar in a high position for your back squat, and working on your front squats to increase your quadriceps:hamstring/glutes ratio. The front squat is also a great way to cue keeping a more upright spine throughout your squat. Following this there are potential deficits to tease out. This is where part two of the squat series comes in.
Try out these simple modifications in your gym, and see how you respond. If that’s all you needed, great! Keep in mind though that as we add load, our deficits are often unmasked. Read part two to find out about common deficits, and how to begin addressing them.
Written by: Cornelius van de Wall, DC